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Quilceda Creek Through the Years

Tasting shows how Paul Golitzin has fine-tuned the Cabernet
A vertical tasting at Quilceda Creek showed off the Washington Cabernet's ageability.
Photo by: Courtesy of Quilceda Creek
A vertical tasting at Quilceda Creek showed off the Washington Cabernet's ageability.

Posted: Sep 9, 2010 10:28am ET

Alex Golitzin should know a thing or two about making ageable Cabernet Sauvignon. His uncle, André Tchelistcheff, made some great wines when he was chief winemaker for Beaulieu VIneyard in Napa Valley from the 1930s through the early 1970s. His wines at Beaulieu were always elegant, supple in texture, beguiling.

Tchelistcheff helped Golitzin to make his first home wine, a 1974 Merlot, and encouraged him to go commercial and start his own winery in 1978. That’s how Quilceda Creek got started, and it quickly became the iconic Cabernet Sauvignon in Washington.

But it wasn’t at all like Tchelistcheff’s wines. Powerful and tannic, Quilceda Creek Cabernet had a grip like a lumberman’s handshake, but the wines also had such pure, joyful fruit character and impressive length that they practically screamed “cellar me!” That’s how they were for the first couple of decades.

Before lunch recently at the winery in Snohomish, a suburb of Seattle, Alex, Paul Golitzin (Alex’s son) and I tasted through a vertical of 10 Quilceda Creek Cabernets from 2007 back to 1998, and ended with the 1992.

Paul joined the winery in 1998. In his first few years, working together with his dad, Paul gradually nudged the style away from the big grip. The increased suppleness came in part from a shift in vineyard sources. Basically he advocated using more grapes from the family’s holdings at Champoux Vineyard in Horse Heaven Hills and cutting back on the percentage from Red Mountain, known for its fierce tannins. For years the percentage was around 40. Today it’s down to 12.

Reducing the percentage of Red Mountain fruit definitely makes the young wines more approachable. Quilceda Creek also moved into a new winery in 2004, which allowed Paul to start using air pulses instead of pumpovers for gentler handling during fermentation and other winemaking options designed to soften the texture. But even before that, Paul was moving the wines in that direction.

Where the old style took 10 years or more to soften that rough edge from tannins, the newer vintages definitely are more cuddly. I have no doubt they will age beautifully. It’s been my experience that balanced, intense, flavorful wines just do. These are great wines. I rated them all (non-blind) between 93 and 97 points, pretty much the same range in my blind tastings for new releases.

The oldest vintage, Quilceda Creek 1992, shows what can happen when the wines age long enough. Aromatically focused and pure, its red pepper and red berry flavors run through what is now a velvety texture, bringing hints of smoke, cocoa and licorice to the mix. Aristocratic, fully integrated, seamless, with a gorgeous balance. (95 points, non-blind)

The 1998 showed a hint of animal in the background, but juicy with red berry and black currant fruit that powers through a layer of firm tannins. It has presence, focus and depth, with caramel and bouillon overtones that add to the mix on the long and complex finish. Has miles to go. (94 points, non-blind)

The 1999  has an aristocratic feel to the structure, refinement to the spicy, cocoa and pepper nuances to the currant and cherry fruit, flavors elegantly integrated. The finish has roasted pepper notes and the tannins have a bite. (93 points, non-blind)

Ripe, plush and generous, the 2000 shows black cherry and licorice flavors, hints of roasted herbs adding extra nuances. The finish comes together with great focus and depth without weight. This one has finesse. (93 points, non-blind)

Ripe, spicy and complex, the 2001 hints at caramel and tobacco overtones to the dark berry and currant flavors, singing through the veil of fine tannins. Has muscle but it dances. (94 points, non-blind)

I found the powerful, tannic, focused 2002 to be the wine of the day. It’s not heavy but muscular with ripe cherry, currant and cocoa, coming together on the racy finish. Has vibrancy in the crisp texture and depth in the complex flavors. Lingers enticingly. (97 points, non-blind)

Round and velvety, the 2003 has a nubby feel to the surface texture, offering depth of dark plum, prune and exotic spice flavors, lingering on the generous finish. Tannins bite a bit, but they just need time. This wine was No. 2 on the Wine Spectator Top 100 in 2006. (95 points, non-blind)

Rich, ripe, generous, the 2004 shows sweet currant and plum fruit, framed with fine tannins, white pepper, clove and hints of savory herbs in the background. Feels more supple and enticing. Grows on you with each sip. (94 points, non-blind)

Dense, focused, more red fruit than usual, the currant and plum fruit underlying the 2005 has some heft, all beautifully integrated to drive through the long and expressive finish. Aristocratic and seamless, with energy. (96 points, non-blind)

The 2006 has quickly evolved into something amazing. Dense, focused, beautifully integrated, it is rich and complex without excess weight, lingering on the very long and refined finish. Has power and grace, and great length. (97 points, non-blind)

The current release, 2007, is fantastically aromatic, with floral and spice overtones to the gorgeous currant and plum fruit. In the mouth it turns elegant and refined, with crisp tannins around a supple core that starts smooth and gathers steam on the finish. (95 points, non-blind)

Paul Pashley
Middletown, CT —  September 10, 2010 12:40pm ET
Well, that was heck of a before lunch!!!
Very interesting and answers so much of the unknown for me -
I've been pre-programmed to think that 10 years from now,
you can start to think about opening one of the last three vintages.
After this report, i won't feel at all guilty about opening one or
two bottles per year -
Thanks, Paul
Jameson Fink
Seattle, WA —  September 10, 2010 2:06pm ET
Although I am an unabashed European wine dork, the best red wine I've had in the last two years was a 1994 Quilceda Creek Cabernet. It floored me; a dead-ringer for a classified Bordeaux.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  September 10, 2010 2:49pm ET
I opened a 2005 upon release just to peek under the hood and it was a beast! I also opened a 2004 Galitzine about a year after release and found it extremely approachable. I've opened two more since and they always end up as the WOTN for whatever crowd I'm in. If the main Cabs are headed that direction then I'm going to start taking my full allocation!

Matt Scott
Honolulu HI —  September 10, 2010 5:08pm ET

What a wonderful blog. Quilceda Creek makes my favorite Cabernet in America.

It seems that you rated some of the wines ('07, '06 and '05) higher than during your blind tastings. I was wondering when you do formal blind tastings, is it just a pop and pour scenerio? I have found with Quilceda Creek, just like young Bordeaux, that you need to do some major coaxing for the wines to show what they have to offer - double decanting, hours of breathe time, etc...

Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  September 10, 2010 5:21pm ET
My tasting assistant can open the wines in my blind tastings as early as the vintners request before I taste them. We can double-decant, returning the wine to a clean bottle, if requested. When I am blind tasting I also set aside wines that feel like they need more time to open up and come back to them as much an hour later. There is no big rush when the wines have something important to say.

Mostly, I think the 1- to 2-point uptick in the scores is from time in the bottle. Wines that age well often become more cohesive and seamless after a year or two in the cellar.
Matt Scott
Honolulu HI —  September 10, 2010 5:40pm ET
Thanks Harvey and cheers!
Robert Fish
Half Moon Bay, CA, USA —  September 13, 2010 4:55pm ET
Thanks very much for this post, Harvey. We love the Quilceda Creek wines--even their "Red Wine" offering (~$35/btl) is worth it. That said, the Estate Cabernet Sauvignon is an incredible wine, and compares very well with the best wines of Napa (most of our Bordeaux is too young to compare, so we'll see by 2020 or so!).
Eugene Kim
Houston, TX —  September 13, 2010 11:24pm ET
True this wine compares favorably to some of the best Napa cabs, but at a fraction of the cost of cult cabs. Too good to pass up! Thanks for the report H.
Pacific Rim Winemakers
Portland, OR —  September 14, 2010 4:40pm ET
Harvey, how come we never get invited to those verticals? I had a 1998 Magnum of Quilceda lately, it was a great wine, I agree still young. What do you think about wine ageability in magnums by the way?


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